Avian Expert Articles

Parrot Conservation Surprise Challenge: Bees

The Birds and the Bees

As people were gearing up for the Holidays, I had the great fortune to drive with a dear friend and client to Chicago for The Avicultural Society of Chicagoland — The TASC 2-day learning event. There were a variety of great speakers for the event and I had the good fortune of meeting one of them who was new to me, Dr. Caroline Efstathion. In this column, I would like to share her wonderful and heartwarming work.

It seems that Caroline loves parrots and owns a number of them. She said to me over dinner that she tried, but was unsuccessful, at getting accepted to vet school no matter how hard she tried. But she thought that she would continue a life of science and was accepted into a master’s program in biology and, after that program, into a PhD program in entomology at the University of Florida. But she was most interested in … you guessed it … parrots. So how could she bring her two primary interests, entomology and parrots, together? Well, she learned from some of the parrot people that one of the leading problems with nesting cavities for parrots in South America and Africa is that those cavities are often taken over by — Africanized honey bees! Bingo!

She has been involved in dealing with this issue in several endangered parrots species, including the Cape Parrot of South Africa and the Lear’s macaw of Brazil.

Cape Parrot

Both species require nesting cavities. With the Cape Parrot, appropriate cavities must be available in specific trees, dead yellowwoods, but there is a shortage of these, in part because of habitat loss, and also because honey bees are looking for similar cavities in which to build their nests. Researchers looked at the problem and decided to provide artificial nest boxes that could be hung in the trees. To their dismay, the first nest boxes made of palm material only lasted two years in the moist climate, they were too low, and bees still moved in. Placing more durable boxes 30 to 60 meters high was step two. They even tried to discourage bees by placing a cleaning fluid on the outside of the box per a protocol, and to discourage bees by using used x-ray film on the underside of the top. Some bees moved in within 24 hours, and 100% of the boxes had bee hives as of 2014.

So what to do? Dr. Efstathion introduced a push-pull system to discourage bees from entering the nest while attracting them to traps nearby. A bee repellent could “push” bees away from the nest, and two bee traps with chemical “lure” would attract or “pull” bees. Trapped bees could then be removed and placed in managed hives by beekeepers, as the bees are important to pollination and to agriculture. In this way, nest site competition could be reduced between parrots and honey bees.

In 2015, some of Dr. Efstathion’s Avian Preservation and Education Conservancy members along with a team from Explore Trees installed 20 artificial Cape Parrot next boxes and 40 bee trap boxes at the property. To date, several bee trap boxes have been occupied by bees, which have then been transferred to a farm to managed bee hives. All parrot next boxes remain bee free.

In addition, an educational component was added, in which local school children were told about the Cape Parrots and how unique they were to that area. The children also learned about the issues parrots were having with bees and how honey bees were important for the environment and their community. Children had the opportunity to extract honey, make candles, and put on a bee suit. Many of the children got to taste honey for the first time. Local farm workers also received training on how to manage bees for pollination and honey production. The project is ongoing.

Lear’s Macaw

Only about 1,200 Lear’s macaws exist in the wild, and the species is threatened by habitat disturbance, poaching, and nest site limitations. This endangered macaw nests exclusively in sandstone cliffs and nest site limitations may be a major factor in limiting its reproductive success. Unfortunately, invasive Africanized bees have become more common, probably occupying some nest cavities that would otherwise be suitable for Lear’s macaws. In addition, researchers have trouble safely gaining access near active nests when bee colonies are also near. In March of this year, APEC members traveled to the Caatinga region of northeast Brazil, to assess how bees are affecting the recovery efforts of the macaws. They noted competition for some nest sites and safety hazards for monitoring and research efforts where bees are near macaw nests. They also noted possible opportunistic poaching of chicks by local honey harvesters working the cliff faces and habitat destruction (trees that could host additional bee hives have been cut down to get honey).

In October of this year, APEC planned to join with Brazilian biologists and a team from Explore Trees to begin an action plan to control Africanized bee colonies in the macaw nesting areas. Bee colonies were to be removed and a push-pull protocol implemented to prevent bees from reoccupying cliff cavities. Recognizing the need for local support, interested farmers will be provided with hive boxes, protective equipment, and instruction on how to obtain bee colonies for honey production. It is hoped that the Lear’s macaw will benefit from the absence of bees and the threat of poaching and local farmers will have an incentive not to cut down trees to obtain honey, have a new source of sustainable income, and help keep poachers out of the area.

The push-pull method of managing bee populations shows promise in providing a means to make nesting cavities more available for both the Cape Parrot and the Lear’s macaw. In addition, it can provide a source of income for local farmers by making use of the same bees that have, until now, posed a problem. It is fortunate that Dr. Efstathion found a way to blend her love of parrots and entomology!

More about both of these programs can be found on APEC’s website: http://www.avianpec.org.

Subscribe to our newsletter